When Democrats took back the House in 2018, they made good use of their congressional committees, putting pressure on the Trump White House and investigating the long list of the president’s misdeeds. The House Judiciary Committee led a high-profile investigation into Trump’s potential obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe. The Intelligence Committee investigated a CIA whistleblower’s accusations that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into investigating Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 election. The Oversight Committee investigated Trump’s conversations with Vladimir Putin.
In the Trump era, congressional committee hearings became blockbuster events and Democrats used them to drive the news cycle. Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee was watched by nearly 16 million people in 2019. Later that year, nearly 13 million people watched Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. And at least 20 million people watched the first hearing of the House Select Committee on January 6.
Now Republicans are trying to use that same strategy to set the narrative—putting the White House through a slog of investigations and promising hearings that might shed light on things that they believe the Biden White House would prefer to keep out of the national conversation. The Republicans have given no boundaries for these pursuits. When new House Oversight Chairman James Comer sent a letter to a New York gallery owner seeking information on Hunter Biden’s art sales, Comer claimed that his committee “has broad authority to investigate ‘any matter’ at ‘any time’.”
Democrats might do well to steer into the GOP’s skid. The high-profile committees that Republicans hope to use to spearhead their investigations are now crowded with the Trumpesque members whom Kevin McCarthy was forced to appease in order to secure his speakership. And those figures—the de facto court jesters of Capitol Hill—are noticeably unpalatable to the wider American public, which should be the targeted demographic of the party that has underperformed in the last three election cycles. Lauren Boebert, who nearly lost her race in a reliably red district, now has a seat on the Oversight Committee. Paul Gosar, who has close ties to Hitler-admirer Nick Fuentes, is also on the Oversight Committee. So are nationally unpopular Marjorie Taylor Greene, and culture warrior freshman Representative Anna Paulina Luna.
Already, the Biden White House has begun to paint the Oversight Committee as illegitimate because of its new ideological makeup. When asked if the White House will cooperate with the Oversight Committee, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded with an obviously prepared offensive spin, saying, “House Republicans have handed over the keys to the most extreme MAGA members of the Republican caucus.… these are members who have promoted violent rhetoric and dangerous conspiracy theories, including suggesting violence against political opponents, trafficking in antisemitic lies, and defending and downplaying a violent insurrection against our democracy.”
That offensive strategy—one which pits their own levelheadedness against the fever dreams of the far right—has proven successful for Democrats. Their performance in the 2022 midterms has to be at least partially attributed to their constant messaging about the dangers of “MAGA Republicans.” And while those MAGA Republicans were widely rejected at the ballot box in 2022, they are now some of the most visible figures in the Republican majority.
Comer has said that under his gavel, the Oversight Committee will be “the most exciting committee” in Congress and he has promised hearings into Twitter’s handling of the Hunter Biden story and DirecTV’s decision to remove Newsmax from their package. These might be red-meat issues on the stage at a Turning Point USA conference, but it’s difficult to imagine them resonating nationally. Comer’s promised investigations certainly don’t have the relevance or national interest of previous Oversight Committee investigations such as whether Donald Trump played a participatory role in Russia’s efforts to swing the 2016 election in his favor.
Unlike then–Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s botched decision not to participate in the high-profile January 6 Committee, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries responded to the likelihood of “exciting” committees by lining his side of the bench with his party’s fresh stars. On Oversight, those names include 26-year-old freshman Representative Max Frost (Congress’s first Gen Z member), Representative Dan Goldman (who became a household figure as lead counsel in the first impeachment of Donald Trump), and the online-and-charismatic Representative Robert Garcia, who recently told Vox, “I’m fired up to take folks like Marjorie Taylor Greene on, take on her bullshit, take on her lies.”
Garcia is likely to have plenty of opportunities to “take on her lies” as Marjorie Taylor Greene’s allegiance with Kevin McCarthy has transformed her from a pariah to a figurehead. And the congresswoman has already brought her “Ma’am this is an Arby’s” vibe to her committee work. During the Oversight Committee’s first hearing of the new session, Marjorie Taylor Greene told the head of the Government Accountability Office that “in Illinois, they received $5.1 billion at an elementary school” to teach critical race theory. There is, of course, no elementary school in Illinois—or anywhere else in America—that has ever received $5.1 billion from the government to do anything, let alone teach critical race theory.
At another point in that hearing, Marjorie Taylor Greene asked the befuddled bureaucrat “how much money was given to drag queen story hour.” He said he’d thought the congresswoman was asking about dry cleaning. She then claimed that a Pennsylvania community center “received $16,000 for drag queen story time from Covid cash.” That, again, is just as false as it sounds. The community center has said that they never used government funding for story time and that the relief money they received was used to pay their employees. But these are the sort of fever dreams that are likely to arise during Greene’s allotted five minutes. And Democrats are confident that McCarthy’s elevation of the far right will only hurt his party in the long run. It’s no coincidence that Marjorie Taylor Greene’s 2022 opponent raised an eye-popping $15 million in a race he was always destined to lose.
Kyle Herrig, executive director of the new Congressional Integrity Project told The New Republic that Republicans are “playing to the 20 percent of Americans that are on board with the ultra-MAGA agenda and want to engage in partisan warfare. But that’s not where the other 80 percent are.” Herrig’s claim is difficult to quantify statistically, but a Pew Research study from January did find that most Americans are worried that Republicans will spend too much time investigating Biden.
McCarthy’s deal with the far right also resulted in the new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. Chaired by Representative Jim Jordan under the Judiciary Committee, the weaponization subcommittee seems to be the broad sword Republicans will wield over the next few years. But while Jordan succeeded as a hot-blooded antagonist in his previous committee work, chairing a committee is a significantly different role from being the stray congressman bellowing from the far end of the dais.
The weaponization subcommittee is likely to offer a highly visible stage; Jeffries has, once again, lined it with his party’s top surrogates. He named former Impeachment manager and U.S. Virgin Islands Delegate Stacey Plaskett as its ranking member; Goldman will also join her on this subcommittee.
This particular committee seems to be almost entirely fueled by Jordan’s political vendettas. In the January floor statement in which he called for the creation of the weaponization committee, Jordan falsely claimed that the FBI paid Twitter $3 million to “censor American citizens.” He also claimed that the Department of Justice “treats parents as terrorists” and that pro-life activists live in fear of having their doors kicked in for “simply praying in front of an abortion clinic.” It was a rant, the sort you might expect from your MAGA hat–wearing neighbor who is, somehow, always outside.
But that broad rant is now the justification for the Republican’s leading investigative arm. The weaponization committee is populated by the far-right wing of McCarthy’s party—figures like Representatives Chip Roy and Elise Stefanik, who promised “House Republicans will leave no stone unturned. This will be some of the most important work of the House Republican majority in this Congress.”
While it’s obviously not going to be the most important work in this Congress, it is likely to be one of the most visible. And Democrats might use this venue to make hay over the fact that some of the lustiest plans to weaponize the government and transform the civil service into an engine of political retribution have come from the Trump administration and elite conservatives. In any event, that Democrats seem just as eager to get these GOP Star Chambers up and running speaks to their belief that they can take advantage of their new role in the Republican Congress that prioritizes messaging to the MAGA crowd above legislating for Americans.